Harry Styles (Sony)
Lowered expectations can do wonders for the merely adequate as plenty of people, from the 15th Tinder date (oh, good, he’s brushed his own teeth) to Scott Morrison (oh look, he didn’t light his budget cigar made from the skin of the unemployed) can attest.
So there was a note - a big thumping chord actually - of caution as the first album from this former One Directioner played through a couple of times and seemed not at all bad. Maybe even good.
Escapees from Boy Band World have a mixed record, if by mixed you mean mostly ordinary to pretty rubbish. Citing Robbie Williams or Justin Timberlake albums can only disguise the truth of the rest of them for just so long.
The usual route, and one taken by Styles and his bevy of co-writers and producers, is to throw the kitchen sink at being “credible”, i.e. made for an adult market rather than the teen market which made him a star but now is uncool.
So there’ll be some or all of the following. Meaningful ballads with lyrics about feeling more than teen angst. “Manly” rock bits or even whole songs, to show hair has grown somewhere, if not necessarily on the smooth fanzine chest. Some contemporary sounds, to show he’s plugged in; some old school styles, to show he’s got, or can borrow, some history. And maybe a sly/wry reference to the past life as a waxen idol.
But as it sailed through its fifth and sixth run and still only one or two moments had me smirking, and several had me hooked, it had to be conceded: Harry Styles isn’t just better than might have been expected, it actually is worth the time.
The first surprise was how much of the album feels as if it’s lifted from a 1970s record or three down the back of his mother or father’s collection, not least the country pop Sweet Creaturethat oohs, aahs and grows sideburns and long hair before its three minutes and 45 seconds is up.
Woman, which vamps at the start like Bennie & The Jets and holds its mid-tempo retro shape thereafter, even as some modern sonic interjections look to “update” it, and the overwrought first single, Sign Of The Times, work hard at early Elton John.
(How overwrought is Sign Of The Times? It comes across like Harry Nillsson backed by Pink Floyd, arranged by Eric Carmen and produced by Barry Gibb. Phew!)
Meanwhile, Ever Since New York and Two Ghosts is Elton John again but this time channelled through Ryan Adams – a touch of torch country spinning out gently and attractively, lyrics exposing some fragility and the singing carrying suggestions of bruises underneath the satin shirt.
That sense of mixing old and new through an intermediary generation continues in the slinky groove of Carolina and the finger-picked From The Dining Table, which are homespun, spare and extremely Beck in his non-ironic, acoustic albums: earnestly throwing back to a Laurel Canyon that even the older songwriters Styles has borrowed only know second or third hand.
This even more noticeable in the almost-spectral Meet Me In The Hallway. Here’s a song which with a full band, or full lineup of teen boys alongside him, could be transformed into a drop-to-the-knees ballad but here feels like country rock lightly sprayed with a post-lysergic mood, a tone that is more David Crosby than David Cassidy.
As often happens in the transition from boy band to man’s man, the least credible, or least successful, attempts here are when Styles affects the swagger and sound of a rock’n’roller.
Only Angel is all low-slung jeans and tight sleeveless t-shirt ala early 70s Rolling Stones (probably taken in via Ryan Adams’ Gold rather than directly from Sticky Fingers) with lyrics that eat up the cheese like a hungry journo at a book launch.
Worse though is Kiwi which is pure rockist rock, sung as if he’s trying to convince himself he’s got lead to swing, and weighed down further by hilariously bad lyrics of the “bad woman turns me on because I’m a BAD MAN baby” type.
Get past those two songs though and Harry Styles is an album which doesn’t have to apologise for its man’s past or for his current ambitions. It stands on its merits, whatever your expectations.